Inventive Heroes   Leave a comment

The decade of 1920s taught us many lessons in economics—perhaps foremost among them is that cutting tax rates encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in a variety of revolutionary products, from radios to refrigerators. When entrepreneurs are turned loose and their property rights are protected, what they eventually produce can’t be predicted.

Kimberly-Clark developed the material in Kleenex tissues during World War I. Cotton was in short supply, so they substituted a product they called cellucotton. Made from wood pulp, it was first used in wadded form as a surgical dressing. Later in the war, in its modern tissue form, it was used as a filter in gas masks.

After the war Kimberly-Clark had large supplies of cellucotton on hand and the company searched for years for new uses for their product. Finally, in 1924 the cellucotton became Kleenex tissues. The marketing staff at Kimberly-Clark believed the tissues had a niche market for removing cold cream and other cosmetics. Endorsements from Hollywood stars such as Helen Hayes and Gertrude Lawrence promoted Kleenex as soft and efficient for cleaning their faces. The marketers at Kimberly-Clark read their mail and noted customers kept bringing up “blowing your nose” as an as-yet-unadvertised use. That led the company to do test-marketing and the discovery that more customers preferred Kleenex tissues to handkerchiefs. From there, company boasted that tissues were healthier because they were disposable. “Don’t put a cold in your pocket” was the theme of the next wave of advertising. In 1929 Kimberly-Clark introduced the pop-up box. Sales grew further and were even strong during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The zipper, like Kleenex tissues, had a variety of uses in its early years, even though the US patent office was perplexed by the product and couldn’t figure out how to classify it. The “slide fastener” was first used on shoes. In 1914 one of its promoters, Gideon Sundback, finally produced a zipper that would work consistently work, which he promptly named “hookless no. 2”. During World War I several thousand were sold for use on money belts for sailors. Sundback also sold some to the Navy for a “flying suit” it was developing. Garment manufacturers and tailors still preferred buttons and shunned the zipper.

Finally, in 1923 B. F. Goodrich took a chance and bought 150,000 “hookless slide fasteners” for its rubber galoshes. The company called their galoshes “Zipper Boots,” and the name stuck. Only after that success did the textile industry explore the larger market for zippers on clothing.

The market for air conditioning seems obvious now, but it was not so at the beginning of the 1920s. Willis Carrier, its inventor, worked on air conditioning as a sideline at his job with the Buffalo Forge Co. in New York. Carrier was assigned to help a publisher in Brooklyn figure out how to stabilize the humidity in the printing room. Pages of newsprint expanded and contracted when the humidity rose and fell, and ink dried at different rates when the humidity changed.

When Carrier developed a system of air flows to dehumidify the print room, he also incidently cooled the room. He had solved the newspaper issue, but was fascinated with the broader implications of producing “air conditioning” to cool and clean the air in stuffy buildings. His employers did not share his vision, so Carrier left to start his own company in 1914. His air-conditioning units were huge, cumbersome, and expensive, but he sold enough to acquire the capital to keep improving the product.

Carrier’s big breakthrough came in the expanding movie industry. Most theaters closed down in the summer because the heat and stuffiness made patrons focus more on waving fans than watching the screen. In 1925 the Rivoli Theatre owners in Manhattan decided to install air conditioning to attract moviegoers in the summer. The patrons were enthusiastic; many were more excited over what was happening in the air than in the movie. By 1930 Carrier was supplying air conditioning to over 300 theaters in America. Factories soon followed, and finally, after World War II, Carrier was able to make home air conditioning units affordable and popular.

Scotch tape was developed in connection with car painting. By the 1920s Henry Ford’s all-black Model-Ts were out of fashion. Improved lacquers and automatic spray guns allowed automakers to give customers more appealing two-tone cars. Scotch tape, two inches wide, was invented by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) to give the clear sharp edge where the two paint tones met. Before long, 3M was selling dozens of different types of Scotch tape for a variety of sealing purposes.

These inventions had no obvious mass use or market when they were developed. Entrepreneurs had to invest energy and talent to figure out how best to sell their products, and ultimately consumers decided that Kleenex tissues were best marketed as disposable handkerchiefs, zippers as clothes fasteners, Scotch tape for household sealing, and air conditioning for home cooling. The common uses for these products seem obvious now, but that was not so in 1920. Trial and error, unexpected consumer interest, and sometimes desperation were part of developing these now popular, and seemingly indispensable, products. No planning board could ever have invented these products, much less figured out how to market them. Even their inventors were often mystified by the direction of consumer interest in them.

 

Entrepreneurship is a strange and unpredictable process. We need it, and our lives have been improved by it. We must have strong property rights to sustain it. Often times we don’t stop to think of the courage it took for someone to invent the items we use every day — the risks they took for their own financial security, the money and time invested in the invention and development of the product. Without entrepreneurs, we would still be doing dishes and laundry by hand, sweeping our floors with brooms, and A million other tasks of drudgery. We should celebrate the courage of the men and women who gave us our modern world.

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